Christopher Fildes

A spectator sees most of the City’s game

Christopher Fildes on the comedy of a financial world changing at breakneck speed

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My arrival was marked by a memorandum: ‘LIBEL. Mr Christopher Fildes and Mr Auberon Waugh have joined the staff of The Spectator. As from today, The Spectator is no longer insured against libel. Gatley’s Libel and Slander may be consulted in my office. Nigel Lawson, Editor.’ We survived that, and in time Algy Cluff, as chairman, suggested that I should write a column on matters City and suburban. The phrase was Milton’s — from Paradise Regained, Dot Wordsworth tells me — but Captain Threadneedle, my racing correspondent, derived it from Epsom, home of the City and Suburban Handicap. That seemed appropriate, for (as the Sunday papers used to tell us) all human life is there. My book, A City Spectator (Nicholas Brealey, £12.99), is built on and from these observations of a City changing at breakneck speed, but still intensely human. You may recognise some of them:

I know I should keep a straight face, but the spectacle of banks finding new ways to lose money never fails to tickle me. Their ingenuity is breathtaking. Look at them now, as they come over with their hands up and admit their exposure to Long Term Capital Management, the hedge fund. Giving capital to a bank, says that worldly banker Nicholas Sibley, is like giving a gallon of beer to a drunk. You know what will come of it, but you can’t know which wall he will choose. I never thought that, this time, they would choose a hedge.

I recorded Lloyd’s of London’s long chapter of accidents (and worse) — You can go to sea in a sieve, like the Jumblies, or you can join the wrong syndicate at Lloyd’s — but I noted its resilience: Times are getting harder at Lloyd’s, where globe-flying brokers have found themselves demoted — from their usual first class, right down to business class. An intrepid birdman has been telling me of the experience. ‘Jolly exciting’, he says. ‘Do you know, I could see the wings?’

The people who wanted to sign us up for Europe’s exchange rate mechanism — and what a traumatic experience that was — now want to sign us up for the euro. I never cared for either project:

To rely on the ERM as an external discipline is to say that we either cannot or will not manage our own affairs and would prefer that others acted for us. They will, of course, act for themselves. ‘Nations on the gold standard,’ said Churchill, when as Chancellor he signed us up for it, ‘are like ships whose gangways are joined together.’ No one cared to tell him that ships with gangways joined together are singularly ill-equipped to sail the seas. What gangways are good for is boarding.

Edith Cresson was the French prime minister who doubted English virility and as a European Commissioner put her dentist on the payroll: